Why Does Point of View Matter?

Thursday, February 23, 2012
by raramaurina www.flickr.com
A very common mistake writers make in their first drafts is to head hop, or change point of view, between the characters in a scene. This is usually not done on purpose. Here’s an example:

Eleanor wondered what could possibly be in Harold’s box. “That’s a really small container. I thought you were bringing all your old office supplies.”

“I am,” Harold said, laughing to himself. Eleanor was such a busybody. He would teach her to mind her own business.

“So, this is some kind of joke, then?” She asked, knowing Harold didn’t have a very good sense of humor.

In this scene, we are clearly in the minds of both characters. The scene has more than one point of view.

So, isn’t this omniscient point of view then? Can’t the narrator know what both characters are thinking? Some may argue yes. But omniscient point of view isn’t used much today; and when used properly, it has to sound all knowing—the narrator has to know everything about everyone. That’s not happening in this short scene. There’s definitely head-hopping going on.

Why does it matter?
Readers want to connect with the main character in a story. One of the best ways for writers to accomplish this connection is to reveal his or her thoughts and feelings—not just action and dialogue. Most readers love character-driven novels, so writers should strive to create a character that readers want to follow through an entire novel. Filter the story through this character’s eyes, so readers experience life like him or her.

How do you fix head-hopping?
To fix the above scene, pick a point of view character and filter everything through that character’s eyes and mind. Pretend to be that character. You know you can’t read another person’s mind. You can only recognize body language, tone of voice, and dialogue. Your characters are the same way. So, try this:

Eleanor wondered what could possibly be in the box Harold carried. “That’s a really small container. I thought you were bringing all your old office supplies.”

“I am.” Harold smirked and shook the box.

“So, this is some kind of joke, then?” She asked, knowing Harold didn’t have a very good sense of humor.

He almost glared at her, and Eleanor shuddered. Maybe he doesn’t like me very much, she thought.

I revealed the same information about Harold and Eleanor in the second example as I did in the first. The difference is in the second one, the reader learns about both characters through Eleanor’s point of view. The second scene also gives readers a different opinion of Harold because they can’t see inside his mind. But thet probably have a stronger connection with Eleanor.

Can you have multiple points of view?
You can have multiple points of view, but these should be done on purpose and in different scenes. For example, when James Patterson writes his Alex Cross series, he often has a chapter in the killer’s point of view and then a chapter in Alex Cross’s point of view. The switching is organized and purposeful—not random or accidental.

Point of view does matter. If you are reading a scene and something seems off, look to see if you have a point of view problem.

Margo is teaching a new class for WOW, "Advanced Class: Writing a Middle-Grade Novel Part 2." This class is for anyone wanting to write a middle-grade novel and has at least three chapters completed. Many first draft issues are tackled, such as point of view switches. For more information, check out the class listing here


Peter Green said...

Thanks for clarifying that, Margo. I've also seen switches from first person to third person POV in current novels like The Tin Roof Blowdown, by James Lee Burke and Water for Elephants. In these instances, it seems to work, although when I've tried it, it seems to fall short and sounds better in all third person, with POV switches from chapter to chapter or scene to scene.

Margo Dill said...

You are so right, Peter, I 've seen that done a lot, too. I've also seen 1st person POV done with the switch thing--I think that's how Stephenie Meyer does it in the last Twilight book. Anyway, you are also right that you have to find what works for your voice, your book, your characters, and you as an author. Thanks for the comment!

Holly Helscher said...

I'm working on POV now in editing my novel. This is very helpful. Thanks for helping me clarify what is wrong with one of my scenes. This is it! WOOT!

Unknown said...

I have certainly made this mistake in my own writing. I was blessed to have some good readers to point out the problem and your clarification makes it even more obvious what to look for.

I'm in the middle of a published book that has an interesting story and good characters - but the author drives me nuts by swapping POV in the middle of the same scene on a regular basis!

Margo Dill said...

@Holly--you are welcome. :) I am glad I could help.

@Stephanie: I had a successful and multi-published romance author tell me one time that she doesn't worry about all that POV crap--if she wants to be in the hero or heroine's head in the same scene, she does it. :) So, it might depend on the genre, too .But in my opinion, a story/novel is so much stronger with POINT OF VIEW done correctly.

Jon Hartless said...

I'm afraid I diagree to an extent; in the example given, I honestly feel that the readers are quite sophisticated enough to switch from paragraph to paragraph without even thinking, knowing that we are firstly in the head of Eleanor, then Harold, then back etc.
I prefer the omnniscient 3rd person, I grew up with it.

Connie Hebert, MSW said...

Well done, Margo. Clear and helpful. Thanks, Connie

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